Parks and rail trails go together

By Ellen Kolb. Originally published by New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition.

The Granite State has more than 300 miles of rail trails, along with more than 90 state park properties. Why not explore one of each in a single trip? You can create your own itinerary with the information you’ll find at nhstateparks.org and nhrtc.org. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Take Route 101 to exit 5 in Raymond and head north to Pawtuckaway State Park. Take your pick of activities there, with a lake, a fire tower, and a boulder field awaiting your discovery. Later, head back toward 101 and set your map app to “Raymond B&M Depot” or “Raymond Historical Society.” There, you’ll find a restored train depot and a parking area from which you can set off for a walk on the Rockingham Recreational Trail.

Read the rest of the post at nhrtc.org for more ideas.

Spring on Cheshire roads and trails

Cheshire County, New Hampshire is best known to outdoors enthusiasts for its most dramatic geological feature, Mount Monadnock. I have nothing against the mountain, except that I can’t seem to get to the summit and back without an injury of one sort or another. That’s not a problem. The Monadnock region offers plenty of options that have nothing to do with hiking uphill.

Rockwood Pond in Fitzwilliam , New Hampshire, with Mount Monadnock in the background.
Seen from the Cheshire Rail Trail in Fitzwilliam: Rockwood Pond with Mount Monadnock nearby. Photos by Ellen Kolb.

As part of the New Hampshire Rail Trails Challenge, I’ve been exploring rail trails all over the state – but I’ve barely touched southwestern New Hampshire, aside from a few miles in the town of Troy. This is the year I’ll get busy out in that direction. I got off to a modest start recently on a short segment of the Cheshire Rail Trail in Fitzwilliam.

What a day! Weather was pleasant. The flying insects were not yet out in force (but alas, the same couldn’t be said for ticks; I came prepared with permethrin-treated clothing). Deciduous trees hadn’t yet leafed out. That left the hemlocks and pines to shade me, and as a bonus, the breeze through their boughs was like music.

Parking along long trails like the Cheshire can be a problem. Not every road crossing has room nearby for cars to pull over. I decided to begin my walk at Rhododendron State Park, a mile away from the trail. No trouble parking there. The park’s signature rhododendrons won’t be in bloom until July, but spring wildflowers abounded in the park’s grove and along its trails.

daffodils and violets, flowers

Spring flowers at Rhododendron State Park

From there – pull out your maps app now – it’s a mile along unpaved Rockwood Road to the the intersection with rail trail along Rockwood Pond. Rhododendron Road provides a shorter but less interesting link.

The scenic highlight of the day was the view of Monadnock seen from the shores of Rockwood Pond. Pine trees tried to obscure the view, but I found my way through them.

From the pond, I headed south. The trail was unpaved, wide, and shaded. It’s a snowmobile trail when there’s snow cover, but motorized vehicles are supposed to stay off the rest of the year. Wide ruts in some soft sections of the trail told me that an ATV driver or two had ignored the restriction. Aside from that, the trail was in good condition between the pond and state road 119. South of there, the trail was full of roots and rocks, looking like a typical New Hampshire woods walk. I got as far as Royalston Road before turning around.

I had thought about stopping in Jaffrey on the way home for a cone at Kimball Farm, but the twenty or so cars overflowing onto Route 124 from the Kimball’s parking lot made me abandon that idea. I’ll be back another day.

More travel, more trails

After a COVID-influenced year of curtailing my activities, I’m keeping some appointments that don’t involve videoconferencing. One benefit to out-of-town drives is that I’ve been able to check out new trails. On one day I had just enough spare time to sample the Winnipesaukee River Trail in Tilton. Another day, during a Seacoast trip, I enjoyed a tripleheader of varied paths. A more routine errand to the Manchester Airport gave me an excuse to see how the Londonderry Trail looks in spring.

Winnipesaukee River, Tilton. Ellen Kolb photo.

Winnipesaukee River Trail

This is not to be confused with the Winni Trail, where the “Winni” stands for “Winnisquam.” The Winnipesaukee River Trail may someday connect with Winni, though, if several links are developed. Like Winni, the Tilton segment is rail-with-trail.

The Winnipesaukee River Trail goes from Franklin to Tilton via Northfield, with a little bit of road walking included. I recently visited the easternmost mile. Parallel and very close to U.S. 3, the path is surprisingly quiet, shielded by a row of buildings from some of the traffic noise. The river was pretty but quiet due to lack of rainfall; a depth indicator painted on a bridge abutment was well above the current water level.

A lengthier visit extending to Franklin would have been more rewarding, but my time was limited. I enjoyed a peaceful half-hour along the river. My turnaround point was startling, after the quiet walk: the commercial cluster by exit 20 on I-93. Had I wanted a snack, that would have been a place to consider, with the trail’s terminus flanked by fast-food places. My starting point had some options as well, with U.S. 3 serving as Tilton’s Main Street.

The Winnipesaukee River joins the Pemigewasset River in Franklin to form the Merrimack, the waterway that defines south-central New Hampshire.

Winnipesaukee River rail-with-trail in Tilton NH. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
Rail-with-trail in Tilton. Ellen Kolb photo.

Rochester and Dover

I rarely get to Strafford County. When I did earlier this month, I visited three very different trails.

The Farmington Rail Trail extends from the town of Farmington to the city of Rochester near Spaulding High School, roughly paralleling NH Route 11. I had been warned that it was sandy enough to leave even fat-tire bicyclists in despair. Being a walker, I dismissed that concern. Silly me. It was like walking on a beach, giving my legs more of a workout than I’d bargained for. I probably needed that anyway.

Next stop: the Lilac City Greenway, short and sweet. The northern portion of it runs along Rochester’s main drag, serving as a sidewalk. It’s paved, nicely landscaped for spring, and adorned with abstract sculptures. I benefited from a combination of Charles Martin’s guidebook and Google Maps, which warned me that the municipal parking lot close to the greenway is accessible only to northbound traffic on Route 125.

Lilac City Greenway in Rochester, NH
Lilac City Greenway, Rochester NH. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

Then, south to Dover. Without realizing it, I’d saved the best for last. The Dover Community Trail, developed relatively recently, was wide and quietly scenic. I parked at the western end, at the Watson Road trailhead. The fairly large parking lot (room for about 20 cars) was nearly full when I arrived at midday on a workday. Even so, there was no sense of crowding on the wide, well-packed trail that extends about three miles to the center of Dover.

The Cocheco River flowed alongside the trail, and several anglers in hip waders were trying their luck. I was passed by a few lunch-hour runners, and in turn I passed a few easygoing dog walkers. My map told me that offices for county government and a large insurance company were nearby, but they were completely out of sight and sound, built on higher ground.

Cocheco River, Dover NH. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
Cocheco River beside Dover Community Trail. Ellen Kolb photo.

I’m sure the downtown end of the trail has a much livelier character. I wasn’t looking for lively that day. The Watson Road trailhead was the right place for me to start my walk.

Londonderry

Here’s a familiar destination for me: Londonderry Rail Trail from the Harvey Road/Airport trailhead. What did it look like on a drizzly spring morning? Delightful. A film of pollen glazed portions of Cohas Brook reservoir, but the trees in flower looked so good that I didn’t mind all the allergens floating around.

There are plenty of “destination” trails in New Hampshire worth a full day’s exploration, but I value quick trail stops, too. They can give a busy day a special kind of spark.

Flowering tree and shrub, springtime, Londonderry Rail Trail, New Hampshire.
Springtime on Londonderry Rail Trail, at Little Cohas Brook Reservoir. Ellen Kolb photo.

Subtly Spring

“Show me some spring pictures,” a reader recently asked me. He was looking for budding trees and fresh green growth. Perhaps I can oblige him in another week or so. For now, the signs of spring are subtler.

It’s mud season, but the trails at Horse Hill Nature Preserve in Merrimack were in remarkably good shape the other day. The herons were back on Lastowka Pond, croaking and courting. I could see that the beavers had been busy along the shoreline, taking down a big tree that barely missed a bench as it fell. Deeper into the woods, I smelled freshly-cut lumber on a refurbished bog bridge.

Simple wooden bridge on forest trail
Early-season work by trail maintainers: a refurbished bridge. Photos by Ellen Kolb.
Trees with beaver damage
The beavers are in town: this pair of trees had been untouched a week earlier.

On a recent walk through Mine Falls Park in Nashua, I looked for swans in the cove but found none. Some years, there’s a pair that bullies the park’s Canada geese into the cove’s farther reaches. The geese are safe for now. I was glad to see blackbirds amid the reeds that edge the cove; I missed them in winter.

Blackbird amid reeds
Blackbird, nearly hidden in reeds

Business took me to Loudon recently, and I added a couple of hours to the trip so I could visit nearby Belmont and discover the Winni Trail, a paved rail trail along Lake Winnisquam. That was one of my better detours.

Winni trail logo, Belmont NH

I had the advantage of a fine sunny day, with cool air and miles of visibility. A stretch of trail went through the woods, with lake and rail line out of sight, and then broke into the open to hug the shore alongside the rails. Good thing someone thought to set up a few benches along the way; the views are definitely worth stopping for.

Lake Winnisquam, Belmont, New Hampshire, from rail trail
Seen from the Winni Trail: a railroad signal mast, Lake Winnisquam, and the hills of the Lakes Region.

It was my first experience with rail-with-trail, where a trail shares the right-of-way with an active rail line. That particular line is owned by the state of New Hampshire, not by a rail corporation, and I suppose that might have simplified development of the trail.

The shared right-of-way continues into Laconia on the WOW Trail (for Lakes Winnisquam, Opechee, and Winnipesaukee). Someday, with a lot of cooperation and investment and volunteer work, there could be a continuous recreational rail trail linking WOW in Laconia with the Winnipesaukee River Trail in Tilton via the Winni Trail in Belmont. That’s a project to cheer for, if Belmont’s trail is indicative of what’s ahead.

Winni trail, rail trail in Belmont New Hampshire, in early spring.
Early spring on the Winni Trail

Easing into the year

I wrote last October about a layered trail: ice, mud, and leaves underfoot. That’s pretty much what I’ve found in January in southern New Hampshire, minus the leaves. Things are pleasantly messy, as long as I have some traction on my shoes. Yes, even for the flat paths: slipping on an icy flat trail in Mine Falls Park left me with a concussion a few years ago. That’s one winter adventure I don’t care to repeat.

I was in Sandown the other day, sharing a trail with some polite ATVers. The trail wasn’t so much layered as patchy: ice here, slush there, frozen tire tracks in the shade, and lots of mud down the middle. I accidentally hit on the best time of day to be a walker there: mid-afternoon, after most of the ATVers had finished for the day. Not every multi-use trail works out so well for me.

Not every trail gives me town line markers. I like it when the markers agree with my GPS.

A short drive north: the Northern Rail Trail follows the Merrimack River in Boscawen and part of Franklin. On New Year’s Day there, I was surprised to see what I’m certain was an osprey. I thought for sure they’d all have headed south long before. An unexpected sighting like that is always a treat. I was too slow to get a photo. I have many miles yet to discover along this trail, which is one of the most popular in central New Hampshire. I’ve walked on each end, so to speak – Lebanon and Enfield at one end, Boscawen at the other – and there are about 40 more miles to go. I could bike it in the summer or fall, but somehow I think that’s taking the easy way out.

Norhern Rail Trail New Hampshire with signs for two snowmobile clubs
Where the work of one snowmobile club ends, another’s begins.

While we’re on the subject of walking in January, let’s thank the snowmobile clubs that groom so many of the trails I enjoy. It’s not all snow grooming: when a club takes responsibility for a trail, the members also do things like clear away deadfall and make sure the trail’s full width gets attention.

I haven’t neglected my town’s conservation areas. I spent a brisk hour on a big loop route starting in Grater Woods, connecting with an adjacent neighborhood with which I was unfamiliar, returning on busy Baboosic Lake Road. I’m not a fan of being a pedestrian on one of our town roads with little shoulder and no sidewalk, but sometimes that’s where a path takes me. As for Horse Hill, I’ve never had a bad day there. No matter how many cars are in the parking lot, the trail network is extensive enough to keep us out of each other’s way.

Do you have resolutions about walks you want to take this year? I always start the year with a list of destinations, more for inspiration than anything else. I don’t want to waste time wondering where to go, if I find myself with a free afternoon. I just dip into The List, which I admit is heavy on rail trails. I also keep a map of New Hampshire on my wall, with outlines of each town, and after I walk in a new town I color in its spot on the map. I get a silly amount of satisfaction out of that little visual record.

Join NH Rail Trails Coalition, Get Guidebook as Bonus

[Update, 2021: please note that this particular membership promotion has ended. I hope you’ll check out the NHRTC website to see what’s current.]

My appreciation for New Hampshire’s rail trails is expressed all over this blog, as many readers have found. Now, the New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition is offering a deal that I hope will win the trails some new fans.

Until December 15, 2020, you can join the NHRTC ($20 for a one-year membership for individuals, $35 for organizations) and receive a copy of Charles Martin’s guidebook New Hampshire Rail Trails, 2nd edition at no additional charge. There’s no better guide to the trails around the state, with more than 100 maps along with photographs and trail descriptions.

Want to take a crack the the Rail Trails Challenge? Martin’s book and the Challenge’s Facebook page (private, but anyone may request access) will be your new best friends. Meet the Challenge, earn a patch. Even if you don’t travel on all the rail trails in the state – and as someone who does a lot more walking than biking, I know the Challenge can be a slow process – you’ll have memories and experiences that are way more valuable than a patch, even a pretty one like this.

emblem of New Hampshire Rail Trails Challenge
Patch awarded for completion of NH Rail Trails Challenge

If you already have Martin’s book, maybe there’s a Granite State walker in your life who would love to receive a copy as a gift. Another gift idea: separately from membership, the Coalition also offers a hat for $20 (shipping included).

New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition hat and book

Full disclosure: I’m on the NHRTC board, but I get no personal benefit from this promotion except the pleasure of knowing that it will encourage more people to value a New Hampshire recreational resource.